YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


L.A.'s screening gems

September 12, 2006|Rachel Abramowitz | Times Staff Writer

Perhaps the only people who brag more about their illustrious alumni than Ivy Leaguers are the deans of film schools.

At USC, the names dropped are Robert Zemeckis, Jay Roach, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer. UCLA proudly lists Francis Ford Coppola, Gore Verbinski and Alexander Payne. California Institute of the Arts boasts a who's who of animation, including Tim Burton, Pixar guru John Lasseter and "SpongeBob SquarePants" creator Steven Hillenburg.

Southern California is the film capital of the world and the film school capital of the world, boasting a dozen or so programs to hone the skills of potential filmmakers, usually to the tune of $10,000 to $34,000 a year.

No wonder deans love to enumerate their famous alumni. It's a way of establishing credibility as a mentor to young talent, summarizing an institution's aesthetic and cataloging who's available for networking.

Today's film schools offer a dazzling array of facilities to both teach the classics of filmmaking and prepare young minds for the iPod, "webisode" and interactive media worlds that have sprouted alongside the mainstream movie business. There are programs to train would-be moguls in the art of the deal and, because Hollywood is nearby, industry professionals to give lectures and seminars at local campuses.

Competition to get into the most prestigious film schools is fierce; an example: Six hundred apply to the graduate directing program at UCLA and 21 get in.

Of course, film school doesn't validate everyone in the business: Steven Spielberg, perhaps the most powerful and influential filmmaker of all time, was rejected by USC.

Here's a look at three of the top film programs in the L.A. region -- and in the world:



USC's is the oldest film school in the country and the biggest, with 722 graduate students in six divisions, including production, critical studies and the Peter Stark Producing Program.

It's also the most Hollywood of the institutions. It was founded in 1929 as a collaboration between USC and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and its first faculty members included swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks, "Birth of a Nation" director D.W. Griffith and mogul Irving Thalberg.

Its super-high-tech $25-million, 35,000-square-foot Robert Zemeckis Center for Digital Arts contains 50 Avid editing machines, the student-run television station and 200 digital cameras in a variety of formats. Benefactors include Zemeckis, the "Forrest Gump" director who donated $5 million, and Spielberg, Howard, music and movie magnate David Geffen, the Creative Artists Agency and almost every studio in town.

The Hollywood influence appears to extend beyond the mere physical plant into the curriculum and ethos of the school, though Dean Elizabeth Daley appears to aim for Hollywood at its finest, not at its schlockiest.

"What we're trying to foster is to get people to try to develop a voice, an aesthetic and a way of working that's not just formula," Daley said. "There are a lot of people in this town who teach formula, and they don't teach here."

For years, USC also adopted Hollywood's ultra-competitive ethos. The pinnacle of the student director's graduate film school years is a thesis film, and for years the 40 most senior directing students competed for four slots to make their films with university financing. The losers in this competition worked on the crew.

"One of the things we strive to teach most is collaboration," Daley said. "One experience that's critical: If you're going to work as an independent filmmaker or a mainstream Hollywood filmmaker, you're going to work in a crew. Nobody makes a film alone."

But some students chafed at shelling out $30,000 in graduate school tuition for the right not to make a movie, and USC recently modified its curriculum to create an alternative course in which students can make a thesis-style film with their own money.

USC is eager to remain on the cutting edge of the new-media revolution and has received millions from the games powerhouse Electronic Arts for what it calls immersive media.

Among other things, students in the program develop alternative video games; a recent one, called "Darfur is Dying," puts players in the place of refugees from the African nation of Sudan.



Founded by Walt and Roy Disney in 1961 as a kind of Caltech of the arts, CalArts is, ironically enough the artiest of the film schools.

The school has a connection to New York's Museum of Modern Art, which in recent years has featured two exhibits highlighting the work of CalArts alumni.

One show was devoted to Pixar, the computer animation powerhouse, whose CalArts alums include founding spirit Lasseter, "The Incredibles" writer-director Brad Bird and "Monsters, Inc." director Pete Doctor.

Los Angeles Times Articles